Quoth the ravens, evermore

We meet the brewery started out at the very forefront of Melbourne’s craft scene


3 Ravens’ journey has been a long and fascinating one, and could easily have ended, as so many first-wave craft breweries do, in a slow decline from relevance as innovation atrophies and interest in the core range wilts.

The brewery started out at the very forefront of Melbourne’s craft scene, not long after Mountain Goat had shaken things up with its legendary amber ale. 3 Ravens’ goal was likewise to give the city’s drinkers something entirely unfamiliar, with a focus on cask conditioned ales and traditional European styles. It’s ESB was a game-changer for many Australian beer lovers, while German styles including Altbier and Bamburg-style Rauchbier earned it the country’s most prestigious brewing plaudits.

This was beer devised by seasoned beer lovers. The original brewery basement (on the site of the founders’ engineering firm) was known as the ‘pleasure palace’ and festooned with labels, coasters, bar towelsa and other brewerania from favoured spots across Victoria and around the world. 

But the winds of taste and fashion can shift cruelly, particularly in the world of craft beer. Soon enough, the increased availability of imported US brews and a new wave of hop-forward Aussie breweries nudged local drinkers’ tastes away from the old-world styles that had become 3 Ravens’ stock in trade.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the brewery settled on a bold plan for a reboot, hiring a new head brewer Brendan O’Sullivan. Brendan was an experienced aficionado of Lambic-style wild fermentation and barrel ageing, areas in which 3 Ravens had recently enjoyed renewed success.

Head brewer Brendan O’Sullivan

“I joined the company in 2015, just after we’d won Champion Small Brewery at the Australian International Beer Awards, off the back of three of our beers - our ESB "English" (which won best in class for "British Style Beer"), Pedro Jimenez barrel-aged quad "The Druid" and a chipotle smoked porter "Black Mass". I’d been watching 3 Ravens since the early days and was really excited about the direction it had started taking, so when they asked me to join the company and try to maintain that momentum, it was the right move at the right time.

“I really saw that as an opportunity to reposition ourselves, from bringing worldly styles to Victoria, toward championing local ingredients and developing a range of styles that reflected Australia and Australian drinkers.”

This involved a total overhaul of the core range (or the “Caw Range” as it is somewhat wince-inducingly named) to include all of the Aussie-hopped pale ales and, eventually, hazy IPAs that drinkers demanded. From there, Brendan has segued neatly into milkshake IPAs, kettle sours and the kind of craft-buzz styles that a modern UK brewery might also be pushing.

The bold strategy has clearly paid off; 3 Ravens is the reigning Champion Independent Small/Medium Brewery (as judged at the 2019 Australian Indies) based on its haul of three gold, five silver and two bronze medals. Brendan is quietly confident about its chances in the 2020 competition.

His passion though clearly lies on the more experimental, wild fermentation side of the business. And it’s here that his goal to tie 3 Ravens’ output to the broader Victoria landscape and culture is most obviously fuelling his creativity.

“So, I guess I’ve always been really fascinated with Lambic fermentation. Even before I started brewing I was a lambic enthusiast and a lambic pusher, and generally really wanted to see that style take off here. Hearing about it as a teenager it really sparked something in my imagination; it made so much sense, given how strong the wine culture is around Melbourne, to leverage that or at least engage with some winemakers. We have so many different styles of wine and so many different microclimates within like an hour or two’s drive it made sense to champion that.

“Now, brewers haven’t had close relationships with winemakers historically. This, combined with Cantillon’s view that the second maceration on fruit was always better than the first, because it concentrates rather than dilutes the beer, led me to decide that ageing beer on the pomace could be a good way to go. It’s a lot easier to get pomace out of winemakers than it is to get the juice, and the results have been outstanding.”

Although he spent most of his youth in Perth, Brendan was born in Melbourne and always considered it his spiritual home. He feels an affinity with its noted love of flavour, seen not only in its breweries and wineries, but also its restaurants, coffee roasteries and other craft producers. 

“I roast coffee and make cheese, so it’s really energising to be around like-minded people who are this fastidious about the pursuit of excellence. It means I’m never tempted to rest on my laurels, because it’s a lot more productive to be amongst competition and amongst people who are always trying to better themselves. And with the breadth of our portfolio we can work with restaurants and with people who love flavour as much as we do. We just love exploring and pushing boundaries and sometimes kind of poking buttons.”

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